What is it about Ontario’s breathtaking Algonquin Park , with its 7630 square kilometres of forests, lakes and rivers that resonates so strongly? There is something primeval here, hard to fathom about this land, declared a provincial park in 1883, and home to Aboriginal people for aeons before.
For tens of thousands of years, Algonquin Park was made of glaciers. Eleven thousand years ago the glaciers receded and lakes formed. Today there is wilderness – 34 natives species of trees, including pine, spruce, cedar and fir bordering numerous lakes. The area is populated by some 200 black bears and an estimated 2700 moose, along with wolves and foxes.
And then there are the humans seeking a wilderness retreat, the dream of paddling a canoe on a placid lake, a vast area with only three lodges (although plenty of camp sites).. There seems to be something behind the serenity an invisible, mysterious past.
Perhaps it’s the glimpse of what Ontario was like in the old days, when it was a vast wilderness. The park is about the size of Prince Edward Island or the State of Delaware and rests on a granite dome. But the rocks and trees don’t always yield their secrets, so I check out the Visitors Centre, a kind of museum of the park. There I see relics of the Aboriginal presence. Dioramas show moose, wolves and other animals.
The Logging Museum offers an outdoor view of the logging industry that each winter drew thousands of men to Algonquin. During the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800, the British cut off Britain’s source of wood in the Baltic countries, and England turned to her colony for timber.
Along the 1.6-kilometre walk, which is in a loop, you see various monuments to the logging era. The most striking is a camboose, a wooden shack built to house up to 60 men who stayed in the camp. Inside, you can see the metal pots and fireplace which cooked the tea, beans and ham that the early loggers consumed as their steady diet. What was it like, sleeping two to a bunk and never leaving the camp until the first spring thaw?
And finally, the biggest 20th century mystery of all, the death of legendary Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, the Cezanne of Algonquin. Thompson’s work conveys the spirit of the place – The Jack Pine, intensely drawn dark trees against glittering water. His vision is etched in the Canadian perception of the park, and seeing his work, the place is never the same again. His death in 1917, almost a century ago, happened in Canoe Lake. But how? By whom? And where is he buried? For decades it was thought that his remains were laid to rest in the family plot in Owen Sound, Ontario. Only in the past few years has forensic evidence pointed to a resting place in his beloved Algonquin Park.
Algonquin Art Centre
It’s rare to find an art gallery in the middle of a national park. This heritage building, made of Canadian Shield rock, provides a showcase of Canadian art, much of it about nature. There are art classes in a variety of media – come for an afternoon and paint outside if you wish. And an emphasis on the connection between art, nature and conservation.
WHERE TO BUNK
Some three hundred people have the extraordinary luck to lease cabins in the park. For others, most of the accommodations are on the ground. “Some people are ageing out of camping”, remarks Eric Miglin, co-owner of Killarney, one of three lodges in Algonquin Park. For them, or others who like a bit of luxury with their wilderness experience, a lodge offers rustic chic along with hot water and a pleasant cabin. Opened in 1935, Killarney is built around a central lodge, surrounded by log cabins. The lake in front is dotted with canoes for the use of guests.
At Bartlett Lodge, there’s the option of “glamping” in raised tents. Of course, you could also stay in a three-bedroom cabin. One is decorated by art from Group of Seven Painters A.Y. Jackson and Lauren Harris. The cuisine is a draw for guests and others.
Ehrowon Pines is a tradition for Ontarians and a destination for such luminaries as Goldie Hawn and William Hurt. The resort’s focus is the large dining hall, flanked by porches that look out on the lake.
Next year will be a big one for Algonquin, The Park is on First Nations Land, here will be a settlement in 2117, the very year the leases on some 300 cottages will expire.
And 2117 was the year of Tom Thomson’s death. The mystery continues….